State Department: No Reason for Russia to See NATO as a Threat

By Patrick Goodenough | November 23, 2016 | 4:36am EST
Iskander missile launchers are driven through Moscow's Red Square during a military parade in October 2016. (AP Photo, File)

( – “NATO is a defensive alliance,” and Russia has no reason to view it as a threat, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday, after the Kremlin attributed a decision to deploy nuclear-capable missiles in Russia’s westernmost territory to NATO’s “aggressive” behavior.

With less than two months to go of the Obama presidency, an already tense relationship between Moscow and Washington has taken a turn for the worse in recent days, with long simmering disputes over U.S. missile defense systems and NATO troop deployments on the alliance’s eastern flank becoming more heated.

Reports that Russia has deployed nuclear-capable Iskander short-range missiles and S-400 surface-to-air missile defense systems in Kaliningrad, a small exclave of Russian territory wedged between Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea, prompted Kirby earlier this week to call the moves “destabilizing to European security.”

In turn Russia’s defense ministry spokesman, Major-General Igor Konashenko, said that the real threat to European security came from “Europe’s saturation with armaments” and stepped-up deployments of NATO troops, including Americans, in the Baltic states and Poland.

In a dig at Kirby – a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral – Konashenko added, “One shouldn’t need to be a rear admiral to understand a simple thing: all current threats to European security are a consequence of the U.S. military policy implemented in the past 10 years.”

The rhetorical tit-for-tat continued Tuesday, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov blaming U.S. and NATO actions for the Kaliningrad missile deployment.

“Russia is doing all that is necessary to protect itself amid NATO’s expansion toward its borders,” he told reporters in Moscow. “The alliance is a truly aggressive bloc, so Russia does what it has to do. It has every sovereign right to take necessary measures throughout the territory of the Russian Federation.”

At the daily State Department briefing later in the day, a reporter with the pro-Kremlin RT network asked Kirby whether NATO actions, including “the largest buildup of NATO forces near the Russian border since the end of the Cold War,” had contributed to the environment in which Russia was deploying the missiles.

“NATO is a defensive alliance,” Kirby replied. “It’s always been a defensive alliance. It remains a defensive alliance. There’s no reason why Russia should view NATO in any way, shape, or form as a threat.”

He then pointed to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine as the reason for NATO’s troop buildup in the first place.

“In terms of recent months and years, there would have been no reason for NATO to advance and commit additional capabilities on the European continent – to include American capabilities – had it not been for Russia’s move in Ukraine.”

‘Absolutely unsatisfactory state of bilateral relations’

At a NATO summit in Warsaw last summer, the alliance formalized plans to add four troop battalions to eastern Europe, led by the U.S., Britain, Canada and Germany, in a show of support for those members in the face of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, where it supported separatists and annexed Crimea in 2014.

A U.S.-led multinational battalion is to be located in north-eastern Poland, near the border with Kaliningrad.

The wedge of Russian territory, about the size of Connecticut, is a relic of the former Soviet Union. When the USSR disintegrated, the departure of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania severed Kaliningrad from the rest of what became the Russian federation.

The exclave’s strategic importance to Moscow only grew after Poland and the Baltic states joined NATO, in 1999 and 2004 respectively.

Over the past decade, Russia has periodically threatened to deploy missile systems there, in response both to NATO enlargement and proposals to deploy missile defense systems in Europe, with facilities in Poland and Romania.

Although the missile defense plan, a scaled-down Obama version of a Bush-era initiative, is designed to protect U.S. allies from missile threats from countries like Iran rather than Russia, Russia continues to portray it as a NATO plot aimed to weaken its nuclear deterrent.

How President-elect Donald Trump handles the crisis in relations with Moscow remains to be seen. During the presidential campaign he was frequently accused of being soft on President Vladimir Putin, and in a phone call with the Russian leader last week Trump said he was “very much looking forward to having a strong and enduring relationship with Russia,” according to a readout from his transition team.

(The Kremlin’s readout of the conversation said the two “not only agreed on the absolutely unsatisfactory state of bilateral relations but also expressed support for active joint efforts to normalize relations and pursue constructive cooperation on the broadest possible range of issues.”)

While campaigning, Trump also put NATO on notice that partners need to take on a greater share of the defense burden.

His criticism of the alliance as “obsolete” alarmed some in Europe, although NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, in a phone call with Trump last week, said he welcomed the president-elect’s campaign focus on NATO defense spending – something Stoltenberg noted had been a top priority for himself since assuming the post in 2014.

A decade ago, NATO member-states agreed to commit a minimum of two percent of GDP to defense spending, but as of this year only five of the 28 have done so – the United States, Britain, Poland, Greece and Estonia.

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